How do you judge an Olympic games? It depends on your metric.
If your primary concern is the games themselves coming off without a hitch, then the final assessment of the 2016 summer games in Rio should be largely positive. Somehow, the people of Rio, the Cariocas, pulled it off. Despite the worst economic crisis the country has faced since the Great Depression, they found the funds, the volunteers, and, most importantly, the will to put on a $12 billion show.
The Olympics above all else is a made-for-television production and, by that metric, Rio delivered. We heard stories that will stand the test of time: sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica and American swimmer Michael Phelps built upon their legends, and new names like Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Caster Semenya, and Rafaela Silva will last longer than the scandals created by immature drunk swimmers. The stories we were privy to in 2016 would rival any games we have ever seen.
Rio managed to avoid the predicted catastrophes. No stadium came tumbling down. No terror attack. No tear-gassing of Olympic fans. No Zika pandemic.
Many are also praising the Rio Olympics as a success simply relative to some of the cataclysmic tragedies that have dotted Olympic history. That’s their metric. These Olympics worked because they did not contain an event like the mass slaughter of protesters in Mexico City in 1968, or the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, or the bomb that went off in Atlanta in 1996.
As awful as Brazil’s new rightwing government under President Michel Temer happens to be, no one will remember these games as comparable to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which buttressed the leadership of Adolph Hitler. Temer, who is wildly unpopular in Brazil, tried to avoid being introduced at the opening ceremony. Sure enough, when he opened the games following the parade of nations, he was booed.
For absence of earth-shaking havoc, yes, the Rio Olympics were a success. But this should not be how we judge the games going forward.
There are more important metrics that speak to whether or not we are going to have an Olympics at all—whether the International Olympic Committee will find cities in democratic countries to host these mega-events, or whether only brutal autocracies can do the job. We need to look at debt, displacement, and militarization of public space. By these measures, Rio suffered terribly to host these Olympics and the worst may be yet to come.
Some 77,000 people lost their homes in the planning of these games. A community adjacent to the Olympic Park, Vila Autodromo, was winnowed from 650 families to just twenty. Those twenty families are now trying to rebuild their lives. Another favela called Horto, a community of more than 600 families that has existed on the edge of Rio’s famed Botanical Gardens, received eviction papers during the Olympics. Residents have lived on this spot of land for more than 200 years.
Olympic debt will also be extreme, despite the claims of International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach that this would somehow be a debt-free Olympics. In fact, the games came in 51 percent over budget and organizers are seeking a second federal bailout just to pay security and police.
Then there is the militarization. Brazil’s police force is responsible for one out of five homicides in the last year. It stands to reason that next year police violence will worsen as belts are further tightened to pay the Olympic-sized debt, and struggles between police and displaced people in the Olympic neighborhood continue.
We need to judge the Olympics by these metrics going forward in order to make sure that the future games aren’t staged on the suffering of a host city. The solution is to hold these contests at one stable site. Short of that, the International Olympic Committee needs to stop demanding that residents of host cities literally die for the Olympics.
Let the games be worthy of the athletes who perform and the workers who labor around the clock behind the scenes, to create this made-for-TV drama with real-life sweat and blood.
Dave Zirin is the host of the popular Edge of Sports podcast and the sports editor of The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.